Proposed new FDA limit on arsenic in apple juice vindicates years of warnings

Posted by
July 16, 2013

Last week the U.S. Food & Drug Administration threw a bone (or was it merely an apple core?) to consumer groups and a certain celebrity doctor who have repeatedly warned of the health hazard posed by arsenic in apple juice.

What the FDA did was to propose an “action level” of 10 parts per billion (ppb) for inorganic arsenic in apple juice – the same level the Environmental Protection Agency sets for the toxin in drinking water. This new proposed allowable limit, which would take effect following a 60-day public comment period, represents a significant regulatory tightening from the “level of concern” of 23 ppb set by the agency five years ago. What it would mean is that if apple juice was found to contain inorganic arsenic in excess of that amount, the FDA could take legal action to remove it from the market.

According to FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg, the agency has “been studying this issue comprehensively” and based on its data and analytical work, “is confident in the overall safety of apple juice for children and adults. Two years ago, however, some big concerns about the arsenic levels in apple juice were raised by both both Dr. Mehmet Oz and Consumer Reports.

In 2011 Dr. Oz conducted an “extensive investigation” that found arsenic in popular apple juice brands, including Mott’s, Apple and Eve, Minute Maid and Gerber (whose highest sample contained 36 parts per billion). The popular television physician received a lot of heat for the report, culminating in a shouting match he had on Good Morning America with ABC News Health and Medical Editor Dr. Richard Besser who accused Oz of being “extremely irresponsible”and  “fear mongering” and said that it reminded him of “yelling fire in a movie theater.”

A stern-looking Oz responded that “we did our homework” on this issue and that “most of the arsenic” in a previous study was of the “inorganic kind.” Inorganic arsenic is typically considered the more toxic type, which FDA itself claims has been associated with cancer, heart disease, skin lesions, neurotoxicity and diabetes in humans.

But Oz also claimed that the “assumption that organic arsenic is safe is not true,” adding that “there is a lot of debate over the (presumed) safety of organic arsenic.”

Shortly after the Oz study was released, Consumer Reports conducted its own investigation, finding around 10 percent of its apple juice samples exceeded the drinking water limit for the more toxic inorganic kind.

How ‘archaic arsenic’ comes back to haunt us

While the FDA repeatedly notes that arsenic is a ubiquitous element found in water, air, soil and even the earth’s crust, the agency downplays the human involvement of millions and millions of pounds of lead arsenate and calcium arsenate used in farming and most especially orchards, from the early 1920s right up until the 1980s.  Unfortunately, such archaic arsenic just doesn’t go away, with fields still tainted from use in the early 20th century.  And the agency also fails to bring into the conversation the fact that China, where illegal use of lead arsenate as well as other banned chemicals is suspected, supplies the U.S. with over two-thirds of its apple juice. (Apparently, the term “apple pie American” doesn’t necessarily apply to apple juice.)

In a fascinating article about the history of arsenate pesticides, Pulitzer Prize winning science writer and author Deborah Blum, notes that there’s “a very long history here because arsenic is a very old poison.”

“By the 1920s,” Blum writes, “U.S. fruit growers were plastering on lead arsenate in such amounts that they were starting to poison their customers. In 1919, the Boston Health Department destroyed arsenic- contaminated apples because people were getting sick. The following year, it had to do it again. In 1919, California health officials discovered with alarm that arsenic residues tended to stick to fruit, meaning the poison was hard to remove.”

So have we learned our lesson where arsenic is concerned? While lead-based arsenic pesticides have been phased out or canceled by the EPA over the years, a “modified” one, MSMA, has continued to be permitted and is currently used on cotton farms due to a “superweed” created by the overuse of Monsanto’s glyphosate-based herbicide Roundup. Other arsenic uses include animal feed, resulting in manure that adds still more of the toxic substance to soil.

If despite all this talk about arsenic (which no one is suggesting even remotely approaches the amounts used to poison people in actual and fictitious murder cases), you still wish to keep apple juice on your family’s menu, Dr. Oz, the go-to guy for advice on this subject, gave these tips for buying a “safer” juice back in 2011:

  • Buy organic whenever possible. According to Oz,  none of the organic apple juice tested came back with “arsenic levels higher than the safe limit as determined by the FDA.”
  • Look for apple juice concentrate that’s made in the USA;
  • Check juice packages for the actual country of origin, watching for misleading information such as “a product of Canada,” which may indicate only that the juice was packaged in that country.

But while refined apple juice is in no way considered a “health” food, apples — in their whole, unrefined state, complete with the peel — are an exceptional source of antioxidants. Actually it’s the apple peel itself that bestows most of the nutritional advantages on apples; a fact that inspired the popular saying more than a century ago, “an apple a day keeps the doctor away.” So our best advice would be to go with the real McCoy — meaning organic, U.S.-grown varieties that can be eaten, peel and all, without having to worry about ingesting residues of toxic pesticides.